I remember visiting my father’s hometown when I was little. The village had no electricity. The shadows on the wall, the flickering of the kerosene lamp, looked spooky. The villagers were awed when my father turned on a tape recorder. They could not understand how a person’s voice could come out of a tiny, funny-looking machine. I cannot forget their bewildered look as they studied the apparatus.
Power was supplied to only 12 percent of rural areas in 1965. By mid-1970s, the figure rose to about 50 percent. A penetration ratio of over 90 percent was only possible after the first nuclear reactor in Gori was activated in 1978. South Korea was able to achieve a rags-to-riches miracle and fast advance in industrialization over just four decades all thanks to infrastructure and a cheap power supply.
Without cheap electricity, the steel mills in Pohang, the petrochemical plants in Ulsan, and the electronics and textile lines in Gumi could not have run at full steam. Electricity has become as indispensable a resource in modern human civilization as water and food. Vaccines to cure epidemics and TVs that connect to the world would not exist without power.
The first G-20 Energy Ministers’ Meeting since 2008 was held in Istanbul on Oct. 2. In their meeting, energy ministers of the world’s 20 richest advanced economies focused on inclusive energy collaboration to balance the polarization of energy resources between developed and poor nations.
In his opening address, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, president of Turkey, highlighted that more than 1.1 billion people live without access to electricity and most of those unfortunate people live in sub-Saharan Africa and Asia. The conference was filled with envoys, businessmen and journalists from Africa. Energy exploration and development in Africa has mostly been done for overseas supplies. Gas, oil, coal and minerals were dug up mercilessly from Africa, but a great part of the continent has not see the benefits until this day.
Turkey raised the awareness of the urgency of electricity going to Africa for a reason. Turkey is where Europe and Asia converge. Its economy relies heavily on the European Union and the Middle East. The EU has been in a financial squeeze since 2008 and the Middle East remains unstable since the Arab Spring democracy movements.
Turkey needs a new breakthrough and is looking to Africa, where the Muslim population is big. The country declared 2005 the Year of Africa. When he was prime minister, Erdogan visited Somalia and normalized diplomatic relations with the country. African states with diplomatic relationships with Turkey increased from 12 to 39 over the last six years.
Development plans for Africa through energy supplies jibes with Turkey’s interests. After it took over the presidency of the G-20 for 2015, Turkey arranged the energy ministers meeting and drew up an action plan for energy access and investment in sub-Saharan Africa. The U.S. played a major role behind the scenes. The U.S. has been worried about China’s expanded investments in African natural resources. China, which will become the G-20 host next year, plans to expand the electricity access agenda from Africa to Asia.
This is where Korea should step in. Energy technology is one area in which Korea excels. Korea has the world’s top skills from reactor design and engineering to power transmission and distribution. It is rich in experience. Veteran workers from the baby-boom generation are being pushed out of the workforce. Here is a late-life opportunity for them. The energy campaign in Africa as part of the G-20 agenda could be a golden opportunity for Koreans.
Africa is finally being awakened. It could one day become a growth engine for the world economy. If we can share our expertise on power systems that we mastered in just four decades with Africa, we could find ourselves in a land of opportunities. The growth potential in Africa is immeasurable. The market also could provide work for our retiring generation and young people struggling for scarce jobs at home.
Yet few in Korea appear to be interested. The backlash from reckless resources development by the Lee Myung-bak administration is one reason. But our rivals are making fast inroads in Africa. Africans have become savvier. They can decipher lasting partners from greedy businessmen. We must make our move.
JoongAng Ilbo, Oct. 12, Page 34
*The author is the business news editor of the JoongAng Ilbo.
by Jung Kyung-min